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Becoming a certified organic dairy

Lessons from our experience at WCROC

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star May 14, 2010

grazing in pasture

Pasture must provide no less than 30% of the cow's diet during the grazing season on Minnesota certified organic dairies.

Three years ago Meg Moynihan, Organic and Diversification Specialist, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and I wrote a short series on certified organic dairying. Our intention was to provide information that would help a dairy farmer decide if organic dairy farming was a good option on her/his farm. Since then we transitioned a dairy herd, pasture, and crop acres at the West Central Research and Outreach Center to organic. We've received our certificate and will be selling certified organic milk on June 1.

Transitioning to certified organic continues to be an interesting option for many dairy farms. The changes in management may not present many problems—especially if grazing, use of manure for fertility, crop rotations, and minimal use of synthetic chemicals has been practiced.

Based on our experience with the transition process and hearkening back to the earlier articles, consider these recommendations:

  1. Find a certifying agency before you start to transition. Certification agencies are accredited by the USDA, empowering them to monitor your organic plan and management to assure that your farm is meeting National Organic Standards and additional expectations set by the certification agency and the processor that will be marketing your milk. This is very important. The national organic rule provides bedrock requirements but there is enough variation in interpretation so you will need to maintain excellent communication with the agency during transition. This is especially true with products that may or may not be listed on an approved list. See MDA's list of certifiers for Minnesota .
  2. Prepare an organic plan. The first step is to create an “Organic System Plan” (OSP) and submit it to your certifier. The OSP is a summary of how you plan to manage your farm in regard to the organic requirements. Typically (and conveniently), the OSP is the same thing as the certification agency's application form. It should include descriptions of:
    • Farm practices and procedures to be performed. Examples include requirements that pasture will provide no less than 30% of the cow's diet during the grazing season and tail docking is not an approved practice. Questions? When in doubt, call the certifier.
    • Each substance to be used as an input, location(s) where it will be used, and documentation of commercial availability. These may include source of animals, feed and feed supplements, health care practices and materials, manure management, record-keeping system and product labeling. A new requirement is that straw be certified organic. Some suppliers will suggest that a product they are selling is acceptable for organic production. Caution—If a product is not listed on the National List or the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) list, it may not be an acceptable product and must be verified by the certifier. Unacceptable products may be listed, saving a call to your certifier. For the Morris herd, we found that one liniment for treating mastitis was acceptable with a glycerin base, but unacceptable with a propylene glycol base. Be sure your veterinarian is familiar with organic requirements and is careful to use or prescribe approved products. Questions? When in doubt, call the certifier.
    • The requirement to create an OSP and maintain detailed records has discouraged more than one farmer from becoming certified organic. While the effort is significant, it is doable, and some farmers have told us that, in retrospect, keeping better records has made them better farmers. When you select a certifier, they will provide the forms you need for recording your organic plan. I repeat: When in doubt, call the certifier.
  3. Organic inspection. The certifying agency will send an organic inspector to your farm prior to initial certification, then once a year thereafter. The inspector's job is to verify what you described in your OSP. The inspection includes reviewing field maps, input, production, harvest and sales records, and any tags and labels from purchased inputs such as fertilizer, seed and inoculum. If you have prepared an organic plan, had it approved by the certifier, followed it, and maintained meticulous records, the inspection will be relatively painless.
  4. Organic certification. A certification review committee will examine your OSP/application form and the inspector's report. If the committee determines that you are in compliance with organic standards, they will issue a certificate. After you receive your certificate, you may begin selling your products as organic.

Recently an applicant for an organic research position was asked if organic rules were too stringent. He said no, the standards should continue to become more stringent. He said the assurance that a high standard of organic production is maintained is the most important reason that consumers have to buy organic products. He has a good point.

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